How strange to see people when you don't expect them - out of habitat, out of uniform. This is how I felt when I encountered a 20th-century icon in the street. Horn-rimmed glasses, a face so celebrated that the cartoonist needs only a squiggle to draw it. On a winter Sunday on Madison Avenue; a woman on his arm who did not seem the object of an obscure, yet famous love. It didn't even register, until my husband nudged me with his elbow. Then the nickel dropped, and the bell rang. The Asian woman, the glasses, the face.
The boy from a blue-collar family in Brooklyn, who in high school already made more money than his parents, writing jokes under a pseudonym. The autodidact whose dream came true of living in Manhattan, who got rich telling funny stories about New York liberals: neurotic, pessimistic, sentimental, cultured, contradictory - like himself. Woody Allen ought to have lived in the Upper West Side, the neighborhood of professors, musicians, scriptwriters, journalists and other Jewish liberal professionals. But he preferred to live here, a stone's throw from where we saw him among the city's most hide-bound bourgeoisie, because people don't always behave according to type.
In this Christmas season we are privileged to enter his dwelling place, thanks to a documentary on him that has just premièred in Spain. Of this three-hour documentary the critics have said, and I agree, that the first part is the best: the part that looks into his origins, a realm little known to viewers. I think it is the first half hour that best condenses the essence of the personality: the hard-working Jewish family, the boy deaf to school discipline, the dreamer in the neighborhood cinema, the comic heritage of the Yiddish theater and the Marx Brothers.
I think it is the first half hour that best condenses the essence of the personality: the hard-working Jewish family, the boy deaf to school discipline, the dreamer in the neighborhood cinema
Woody Allen has been hard at work since he was a child, as if the school we see in the documentary was just a formality he complied with to please his mother. She appears pontificating beside her son, speaking for herself and him too, as in caricature of the possessive mother figure, an archetype of Jewish humor that haunts his films.
This film helps you to love him. Or to reconcile those of us who are miffed at his tourist pilgrimage of recent years, in which his films lose the soul and light of their true universe. The fact is, the more local, the more place-specific his films have been, the more universal the emotions they conveyed; and the more cosmopolitan he now tries to be, the more banal his vision of the world. But to be shown his persistence, his first steps as a stand-up comedian, his invention of a peculiar, charming universe, populated by actors who under his direction seemed people you might meet on a New York street corner: to see it all condensed into three hours, makes you really grateful for this expansion of your horizon.
We are told, once again, that it is wrong to think of him as an intellectual. This is true. Why should a creator be an intellectual? He has enough to do making up stories. We might only ask that he take time off for reflection between one and the next. There is no law saying you have to a make a movie every year. But what can you expect the old guy to do now, if he has been writing stories since he was in school? Maybe it's his way of defying the passage of time. And European producers keep giving him enough money to play with every year.
I love his craftsman conception of his work. The papers with ideas, kept in the bedside table. You feel that as long as he keeps working, it all has meaning. Maybe one of these days he will take notice of what we are saying, and go back to Brooklyn, the place where he began, and knows how to portray, better than the touristy Europe where he only lives in five-star hotels.